Parks vs. bud­get­ing by bal­lot

It’s a close call on Prop. 21, but the ‘yes’ side should pre­vail

Los Angeles Times - - News - GE­ORGE SKEL­TON from sacra­mento ge­orge.skel­ton @latimes.com

Cal­i­for­nia’s mag­nif­i­cent state parks are fall­ing apart fast.

The bud­get­ing sys­tem for state govern­ment is in shambles and prac­ti­cally dys­func­tional.

Propo­si­tion 21 on the Novem­ber bal­lot would fix the parks.

But it would pound an­other kink into bud­get­ing for the rest of govern­ment. Or maybe not. This one is tough. And as with most tough pol­icy is­sues, sim­plis­tic rhetoric doesn’t get to the real crux of the mat­ter.

Yes, we all love parks — some of us more than oth­ers, but no one wants to see them con­tinue to de­te­ri­o­rate. The is­sue isn’t the glory of parks. It’s who pays to save them. And who de­cides.

And yes, bal­lot box bud­get­ing is a scourge of state gov­ern­ing. It re­duces the flex­i­bil­ity of the gover­nor and the Leg­is­la­ture to act. But if they’re in­ca­pable of act­ing, should the vot­ers then solve the prob­lem them­selves?

Be­sides, Prop. 21 is sort of be­nign bal­lot box bud­get­ing be­cause it would gen­er­ate a new rev­enue source to pay for its spend­ing pro­posal. It wouldn’t merely lock up a chunk of the state Gen­eral Fund, as pre­vi­ous bal­lot ini­tia­tives have.

“This would have been eas­ier to pass if it just said the Leg­is­la­ture must spend $300 mil­lion a year on parks,” says Joe Caves, cam­paign co­or­di­na­tor for Prop. 21. “But that’s bal­lot box bud­get­ing. We’re let­ting the vot­ers de­cide whether they want to pay ad­di­tional for parks.”

Prop. 21 would im­pose an $18 sur­charge on ve­hi­cle reg­is­tra­tion, ex­cept for com­mer­cial ve­hi­cles and trail­ers. In re­turn, the ve­hi­cles would be en­ti­tled to free day-use en­try and park­ing at state parks. Fees could still be charged for tours and overnight camp­ing.

The sur­charge would gen­er­ate about $500 mil­lion an­nu­ally. All of that would have to be spent on op­er­at­ing, main­tain­ing and re­pair­ing state parks (85% of it) and pro­tect­ing other wildlife and nat­u­ral re­sources (15%).

But Prop. 21 ac­tu­ally would give the Leg­is­la­ture more flex­i­bil­ity over the deficit-plagued Gen­eral Fund. That’s be­cause law­mak­ers could “back out” — in bud­get speak — the roughly $140 mil­lion in Gen­eral Fund money cur­rently be­ing spent on parks and al­lo­cate those dol­lars to other pro­grams, such as ed­u­ca­tion and health­care.

In all, af­ter sub­tract­ing the loss of Gen­eral Fund money and ve­hi­cle en­try fees, state parks and wildlife pro­grams would come out at least $250 mil­lion ahead an­nu­ally, the leg­isla­tive an­a­lyst cal­cu­lates.

Back­ing the bal­lot ini­tia­tive are the pri­vate Cal­i­for­nia State Parks Foun­da­tion and a long list of en­vi­ron­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions and ac­tivists. They’ve raised roughly $5 mil­lion and have banked enough for TV ads, Caves says.

There’s only to­ken op­po­si­tion, pri­mar­ily from the au­to­mo­bile man­u­fac­tur­ers lobby. The au­tomak­ers feel they’re be­ing un­justly picked on.

“They’re tired of all these nickel and dime car taxes,” says Rob Stutz­man, a strate­gist for the lobby, called the Auto Al­liance. “They’re not op­posed to ve­hi­cle fees, but they want them con­nected to fund­ing trans­porta­tion.

“If this passes, where does it end? Does the teach­ers union come up with a $50 fee for schools?”

Ac­tu­ally, the ve­hi­cle li­cense fee — the con­tro­ver­sial “car tax” — funds all types of lo­cal govern­ment ser­vices. The smaller ve­hi­cle reg­is­tra­tion fee does help pay for the DMV and CHP.

Eu­gene F. Erbin, Sacra­mento lob­by­ist for the au­tomak­ers, says: “We’re not op­posed to parks. But we don’t want to be the eas­i­est tar­get.”

The au­tomak­ers, how­ever, don’t op­pose Prop. 21 enough to spend much money fight­ing it. They’ve put up less than $50,000 and plan no ad­ver­tis­ing.

One glar­ing fault in Prop. 21 that em­bod­ies the evils of bal­lot box bud­get­ing is its lack of any pro­vi­sion al­low­ing the Leg­is­la­ture to amend the mea­sure. If the law­mak­ers wanted to tweak the ini­tia­tive in any man­ner, an­other bal­lot mea­sure would be re­quired.

That was a po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion.

“Vot­ers don’t trust the Leg­is­la­ture,” Caves notes, “and if there was even a sug­ges­tion that it could change the mea­sure, vot­ers would find that com­pletely un­ac­cept­able.”

I called state Parks Di­rec­tor Ruth Cole­man. Legally, she can’t ad­vo­cate Prop. 21’s pas­sage. But she’d love the sta­ble source of rev­enue the ini­tia­tive would pro­duce.

There’s a back­log of $1.3 bil­lion in de­ferred main­te­nance, she says. It in­cludes leak­ing roofs, rot­ting wa­ter pipes, bro­ken fences, eroded trails....

“We do a lot to hide it,” she adds. “If a bath­room is non­func­tion­ing, we put a lock on it. We were lock­ing ev­ery other bath­room on the beaches.”

Cole­man is one parks di­rec­tor who ac­tu­ally camps reg­u­larly and per­son­ally in­spects the fa­cil­i­ties and staffing.

“I was camp­ing at El Cap­i­tan State Beach in Santa Bar­bara County and saw a ranger dur­ing the evening,” she re­calls. “I asked her how many rangers there were. She said, ‘I’m the only one. The only one for El Cap­i­tan, Refu­gio and Gaviota.’

“They’re a few miles apart. The parks were full, maybe 3,000 peo­ple. I said, ‘I hope noth­ing goes wrong.’ Any­thing that goes wrong in a city can go wrong in a camp­ground.”

She’d like to hire more rangers as well as ar­rest the de­cay.

But, I ask my­self, why shouldn’t rev­enue rais­ing be a de­ci­sion for the gover­nor and the Leg­is­la­ture? They’re the ones who should be cre­at­ing sur­charges to fund parks. That’s their re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Then I re­mem­bered it’s po­lit­i­cally in­con­ceiv­able. That would re­quire a twothirds leg­isla­tive vote. And Repub­li­cans have pledged to vote against any­thing that smacks of a tax hike.

If the Leg­is­la­ture’s twothirds rule for tax in­creases ever gets dumped, then I’ll fret more about a ma­jor­ity of the peo­ple vot­ing to tax them­selves.

In an ideal world, Sacra­mento would sal­vage the parks. But it’s in­ca­pable. So the pub­lic has an op­por­tu­nity with Prop. 21.

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